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Lionel Trilling 1905–1975
American critic, novelist, short story writer, and editor.
Trilling has had a significant influence on the American literary world. As an educator he was associated with Columbia University for over forty years; as an editor and essayist he was an influential contributor to Partisan Review and The Ken-you Review; as a critic-biographer he placed Matthew Arnold, E. M. Forster, and Sigmund Freud in the liberal-humanist tradition which inspired his own work.
Trilling examined the influences of philosophy, sociology, history, and psychology on works of art. A cautious liberal, he refrained from adopting any specific ideology but had a continuing interest in the study of "the existence of the self apart from culture." It was Freud, Trilling felt, who dealt most effectively with this issue. As a result, Trilling placed significant emphasis on psychoanalysis in his critical writings. In addition, he maintained that the creation of the work of art frees the individual from the "tyranny of culture in the environmental sense."
(See also CLC, Vols. 9, 11 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., Vols. 61-64 [obituary].)
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The words we encounter most frequently in the essays of Lionel Trilling are: flexibility, variety, difficulty, possibility, modulation. They are the marks of Mr. Trilling's mind, which is capable at once of more range and more exactness than almost any other critic in America today; they are also, one may say, the burden of his song…. In his disciplined inspection of literature, old and new, we find Mr. Trilling irresistibly drawn toward any writing in which tensions serve to expand the world…. Mr. Trilling, whose style is rarely over-spirited, gravitates more willingly toward an earlier writer like Montaigne, who genially upset an entire system of thought by his rambling insistence upon the "dissemblable," and who was pleased by the man from Delphos because he could even tell one egg from another.
But it is not, primarily, the scholastic proponents of eggness, of the one, the simple and the same, whom Mr. Trilling studies to correct. In his adverse reports, he is concerned rather with the contemporary poets and novelists, psychologists and critics and social statisticians who have looked at our experience and have seen too little of it: who have managed to reduce experience, to make it thinner and narrower than it is or needs to be—who have impoverished it, in their account. Oversimplification is the theme of a number of essays [in The Liberal Imagination]. The sin of reduction is charged with some regret against those stories of Sherwood Anderson in which there is virtually "no social experience at all." The quite different enterprise of the authors of the Kinsey Report is, in a quiet but devastating review, found lacking in the awareness of "any idea that is in the least complex." Even Freud nods, Mr. Trilling maintains, when he restricts the effect of a play like Hamlet to a single source and mode: an unnecessary, schematic contraction of the mystery of dramatic experience. And in the literary history of Vernon Parrington and the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Mr. Trilling detects an inadequacy of perception, of a sort unhappily common with the liberal mind—an assumption about "reality" which delimits the real by excluding from it the mental, the moral, the shadowy, the ambiguous.
A right perception of reality is a major aim of these essays, and no doubt the unifying terms I have mentioned help define both the quality of perception and the nature of the thing perceived. I am not sure I can say anything very enlightening about Mr. Trilling's own idea of reality, he conceals it so gracefully. It evidently touches mind as well as matter, morality as well as economy; it is seemingly large, it contains multitudes, it contradicts itself. It resists formulation. But if the content of the real is richly obscure (and I seriously suspect that this is almost a doctrinaire richness, and that the tendency to hide is in the nature of the idea and is involved with its definitive refusal to be defined), still, the locus or habitat can be uncovered. Reality, whatever its character, has to do with society; it is to be looked for amidst the actions and interactions of men, and there only; it must be talked about, if at all, in terms of the felt motion of social organizations toward certain ends. The social, properly understood, is the real; and to the real, consequently, the ambiguous and the conceptual must be admitted, for they are undeniable factors in the motivation of men. In saying so, I do not imagine that I am doing anything more than repeating that Mr. Trilling is a humanist; for what identifies the humanist in any age is the habit of subsuming metaphysics under politics—of translating questions about reality into the study of moral and political tendencies. Mr. Trilling is almost conventionally humanistic, as well, in his feeling for history ("Tacitus," "The Sense of the Past") and in his affection for rhetoric and his suspicion of logic: for rhetoric can move men to worthy actions, while logic works dryly and inhumanly with the essences and attributes of things. (pp. 313-14)
[Mr. Trilling's] idea of reality leads him to pose the critical question most often at the point of intersection between literature and society. He urges critic and poet alike to center their attention there. "I should instruct the creative artist to look long at the pattern of life and customs, and thence to draw living expressions." I am borrowing the phrase from Horace, but it is suitable enough, for Mr. Trilling is a good deal like Roman Horace (and unlike Greek Aristotle) in his method—a method which, needless to say, involves him with the novel, the narrative portrait of society, rather than the lyric. Looking long at the pattern of life and customs in our time, Mr. Trilling wonders, with V. S. Pritchett, whether it continues to provide the novelist with adequate material; life, he suspects, is deficient in custom and therefore, possibly, lacking in pattern. The case, which is very cogently argued in two essays, "Manners, Morals and the Novel" and "Art and Fortune," cannot be fully rehearsed here; Mr. Trilling is nothing if not complex. But it turns on two propositions: first, that the disappearance of recognizable classes in society has effected a diminution of those "manners" which the novelist must depend upon; second, and more fundamental, that a general failure of will before the convulsive spectacle of human depravity has robbed the novelist of subject—which is nothing less than the will in act—and even of power to cope with such subject as remains. A part of this contention, at any rate, is a pretty old story in America, as Mr. Trilling knows: it was made by Cooper, E. T. Channing, and others even before Hawthorne and James, and the great novels of the mid-century may have confirmed rather than refuted it, in their motion away from "actual" society toward an earlier or a more fantastic dramatic setting.
But Mr. Trilling, who is a novelist himself, concludes with what looks like a paradox. For if the age has let the novelist down, the novelist is nonetheless one of our major hopes, and is enjoined to "do something in the work of reconstituting and renovating the will." It should be said at once that Mr. Trilling does not make the writer solely responsible for our redemption; the task is to be shared by the statesman and the man of social conscience, and the writer will be happier, Mr. Trilling indicates, so soon as he can be relieved of duty. But for the duration, he had better address himself to the business of strengthening the ideas of liberal democracy (variety, flexibility, etc.)—to invest his writing with them, and so to help give them renewed vitality in the society which his writing reflects. There is a trace of Philip Sidney here; there is more than a trace of Matthew Arnold, about whom Mr. Trilling has written an extended study and an editorial introduction. Mr. Trilling shares the "humanistic valuation," which he has attributed to Arnold, "of discourse and letters." Like Arnold (and unlike the more limited and professorial humanists of the twenties), Mr. Trilling appears to cherish a very lofty opinion of the power of literature in the regeneration of society; against, perhaps, the pretentions of science. (pp. 314-15)
It is interesting to observe that Lionel Trilling, who doubts that there is a conservative tradition in America, feels so strongly the need for an enlightened opposition that he is impelled occasionally to enact that role himself. He is short with Rudyard Kipling for being a bumbling, rather than an effective conservative. I hope it is not thought that I take lightly either the issue or the resolution of it by men as gifted as Mr. Trilling, when I suggest, as a more useful description of the centrist position, that it be called a new Stoicism.
Humanism always takes on the guise appropriate to the time: Cicero, John of Salisbury, Montaigne, and John Stuart Mill are differently clothed. But contrary to the usual definition, humanism is not exclusively, I doubt that it is regularly, optimistic and affirmative by nature. It is often characterized by a note of noble sadness, as its peculiar angle of vision picks up the apparently hopeless contrariety of human life. Finding it impossible to justify either assertion or denial, the humanist has frequently withdrawn to a doctrine of sustained tensions; and the courage, sometimes called the duty, to endure, in the midst of interminable and irresolvable polarities, tends to become the chief human virtue. This is a hint of what I mean by Stoicism. And in a period when political and social tensions, literally cosmic in stature, are simply the inescapable facts of life, the Stoic way of meeting experience can become almost irresistibly compelling. (pp. 316-17)
R.W.B. Lewis, "Lionel Trilling and the New Stoicism," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1950 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. III, No. 2, Summer, 1950, pp. 313-17.
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[We see in Mr. Trilling's The Liberal Imagination] that he cultivates a mind never entirely his own, a mind always deliberately to some extent what he understands to be the mind of society, and also a mind always deliberately to some extent the mind of the old European society taken as corrective and as prophecy. He is always aware, to use one of his phrases, of the cost of civilization. He knows the price of glory and the price of equity; that the price of one may be the expense of the other; that the two are incompatible; and that both prices must be paid. He knows; or at any rate he knows that he does not know. I suppose that if he accepted this language at all, he would allow that this knowledge represents the Human price; and he might go on that this is why he has cut down on tykish impulses and wild insights, why he insists on using a mind never entirely his own.
He has always wanted a pattern, whether a set or a current, a pattern of relevant ideas as a vantage from which to take care of his occasional commitments. When he can find the current he will swim in it, when he cannot he will accept the set; in either case they will be the ideas which seem to be the furniture of the American liberal imagination; and in either case he tries to make these ideas the tools of positive reaction and response. He does not ask the question in so many words, but his book asks it: What on earth else is the American mind to do in the effort to control the understanding of that new thing in history, the mass urban society? What else can be done in a society committed to universal education which yet at every level distrusts the intellect?
One of the alternatives is to call Mr. Trilling's habit of mind, as R.W.B. Lewis has done, the New Stoicism [see excerpt above]…. Stoicism is a confession of failure and in our society the confession of failure is a howling success. But Mr. Trilling does not confess failure; it is one of the freakish qualities of his mind that he does not make any confessions at all. More formally, I do not believe that Mr. Trilling makes virtue the highest good in any practicable sense; nor does he concentrate on ethics and the control of passions; nor is he indifferent to pleasure and pain; nor does he blot himself out in favor of self-control. He wants only to control what is there; he finds special forms of reality in the quarrel of pleasure and pain; he finds passion a source of thought and the overestimation of virtue a tragic impulse. These are very different matters, and whatever they may be called they ought not to be called stoicism. Nor does he grin and bear it in the Boy Scout adulteration of stoicism. His fortitude, which he shares with the stoic, and most other forms of surviving life, is of a very different order; his fortitude may cut his gains along with his losses out of obstinacy in particulars or weakness in sensibility, but so does any fortitude that rests on choice. He has the fortitude, in his essays, to act by choice as a public (res publica) mind. It is his business to take a position, to react and to respond, between incommensurable forces. He is an administrator of the affairs of the mind. He is everywhere against the passive as he is against escape into the long view or aggression into the moral view. (He quotes approvingly Niebuhr on Kant that the Radical Evil is "man's inclination to corrupt the imperatives of morality so that they may become a screen for the expression of self-love.") There is a world of difference between the kind of acceptance which is a surrender of the insurrectionary and initiatory powers of mind and the kind of acceptance which is an insistence (even when it does not share them) on the conditions of effort and which derives from that insistence the necessity for insurrection and initiative. It is the difference between saying that the job cannot be done and saying that the job must be done over again at the cost of any insurrection and any initiative. It may be that to hold such notions and be without the power of anything but critical action is to be a stoic in fact. To Mr. Trilling it is an aspect of what he calls moral realism; it is a very different thing from the stoicism which Henry Adams used to call moral suicide. Put another way, Mr. Trilling requires the development not the attrition of values in the conflict between morals and experience; and his chief complaint is against the attrition of value after value, often mistaken for the hardening, and sometimes for the prophecy, of value in the contemporary American mind.
It is true that he makes these distinctions chiefly in discussing novelists, but I do not see any radical distinction between the novelist's mind and other minds. He gives us Faulkner and Hemingway as exceptions to the very stoicism which Mr. Lewis fastens upon him; he presents them as writers in whom ideas flourish and the mind has power. The mind in question would seem to be the mind of primitive terror and childhood piety, almost a nightmare piety, and it would seem to me Mr. Trilling gives this mind more credit than it deserves, for it reaches full action in the "moral realism" of the reader, not its own. (pp. 32-4)
No doubt his special form of public mind—more valuable than anything except a special form of the individual mind—is the result of his modification and development, his correction, of his two masters, Arnold and Freud…. Because of Freud, the contingency of incentive and dread is clearer than in Arnold; because of Arnold, the intellectuality and sanity of art are clearer than in Freud. For Mr. Trilling—who says that it is elementary "that whenever we put two emotions into juxtaposition we have what we can properly call an idea"—for Mr. Trilling, Freud and Arnold are two emotions which, in the concert of conflict, generate the dominant ideas of his criticism; and it is thinking of this conflict and this concert that we see that Mr. Trilling is praising his own hopes when he says of the novelist: "His inconsistency of intellectual judgment is biological wisdom." Neither Arnold nor Freud would have said exactly this. It is precisely what of Arnold and Freud remain in conflict in one mind, that gives Mr. Trilling a sense of incentive in this characterization of the novelist. As he is primarily a literary critic, Mr. Trilling is also fundamentally a novelist; and for the same reason that he is in intention finally the critic plain, so, finally, as a novelist, he would deal "in his co-existent hatred and love" not with the individual as a literary, or historical, or social object, but with the individual in literature, in history, in society, the individual, where as Eliot says he can alone exist, in a community. In short, let us say that Mr. Trilling takes for himself the vantage of the humanist who is also the critic and the novelist. It is not the only role appropriate to the writer, but it is in any society a dignified and necessary role.
The reader will perhaps come nearer to accepting this short view of Mr. Trilling's vantage as accurate if he will run lightly through the essays in The Liberal Imagination, and count as he runs how often the word human turns up, how often what is human is found or is disastrously missing in the novel, and how often the human is linked with three powers of mind: the power of story (as for Thomas Mann, the focus of the novel is in the anecdote, and Mann, too, is a liberal humanist in hard straits, a creature of Goethe and Freud); the power of meaningfully presenting the conditions of daily life; and the power, the generalizing, abstracting power, of the systematic intellect. The repetition is sometimes harsh, sometimes forced, and has sometimes the strident tone that goes with things never let alone: quite as if the discourse had the urgency of scholarship, or religion, or politics. Indeed, for Mr. Trilling, his discourse has this urgency. His subtitle is Essays on Literature and Society. There is a sense in which his subject is the politics of human power, with his platform that of the independent liberal imagination so far as it survives in him and us. (pp. 36-7)
I cannot imagine a society, I cannot imagine any form of public mind, though I know and do not have to imagine many individuals of our own time, to whom these texts would not seem either the expression of an ideal or a noble lie for the sake of an ideal not yet revealed. But I do not know of a time when a body of such literature flourished, or when a body of literature animated, as it thought, by such an ideal, was great literature. There is the Athenian literature, which Plato attacked; and there is the literature of the Enlightenment, to which we are still in reaction. There is also Dante, but Dante is singular. It is with these reservations, and only when I am exercising the public part of my mind in the public interest, that I would assent to Mr. Trilling's use of language in the passages quoted. I like the intention, but I deplore the record of those who wrote or wanted others to write on a similar declared intention. In short, the intention is only good if kept at an impassable remove from the practical work of the mind. For my own evangelism, I much prefer the intellectual inconsistency which is biological wisdom, the "holy stupidity" of the novelist, and the "negative capability" of the poet, all of which Mr. Trilling praises on one page of the essay called "Art and Fortune." I prefer them because they seem in better support than the texts quoted of the very power of the mind, its hardness, brilliance, system, and all, which Mr. Trilling wants; and not only that but also better suited to promote the restoration, in the broadest possible sense, of the politics of human power, which has a harder seriousness than any system.
In saying all this, I believe I am on Mr. Trilling's side, only further over into the tory anarchy which is just the other side of liberalism, but I say it not to express an irritating sort of agreement but in order to explain my repudiation of his question of why it is, of the ideas which have been generated by liberal democracy, that they "have not infused with force and cogency the literature that embodies them." I don't mind the question so much as I do the attributes he gives it. "This question is the most important, the most fully challenging question in culture that at this moment we can ask."
This is the trouble with a feeling for systems; it makes such questions possible and makes them seem legitimate. The law I know says that liberal democracy, like Stalin's communism, the despotism of the seventeenth century, or the omnicompetent state of Dante's Italy, is an incentive to literature only in the sense that it is a barrier to it. The politics of existing states is always too simple for literature; it is good only to aggravate literature. The politics of the state is the politics of what Lord Acton meant by power, and it is only when it is "out of power" that it can construe life, as literature needs, in terms of the politics of human power.
This is half the objection to Mr. Trilling's question; and the second half is like this first. The true business of literature, as of all intellect, critical or creative, is to remind the powers that be, simple and corrupt as they are, of the turbulence they have to control. There is a disorder vital to the individual which is fatal to society. And the other way round is also true. The reader who thinks Mr. Trilling does not know this when he is not thinking about it has only to consult the remarks about Kipling and Nationalism. The trouble is that his masters, Arnold and Freud, both extremists in thought, occasionally overpower him: they make him think too much. (pp. 40-2)
R. P. Blackmur, "The Politics of Human Power" (copyright © 1950 by Richard P. Blackmur), in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XII, No. 4, Autumn, 1950 (and reprinted in his The Lion and the Honeycomb, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, pp. 32-42).
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The Opposing Self and The Liberal Imagination are, of course, all of a piece; to read both books is to see Mr Trilling emerging more clearly than ever before as the guardian of the intellectual class…. As a distinguished member of this class, Mr Trilling in The Liberal Imagination was dismayed to find that the best of modern European literature has been written by men who are indifferent or even hostile to the tradition of democratic liberalism: Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, and Gide 'do not seem to confirm us in the social and political ideals which we hold.' Largely as a result of this fact Mr Trilling has become a divided and reactionary man; he realizes that if one is to concern oneself with modern literature at all one must do so by way of these six writers, but his own heart is not in the work. For the truth is that Mr Trilling does not really like the Big Six; he speaks of them respectfully but with no conviction; he is much more at home with Forster, James, and Howells. (pp. 377-78)
It has often been suggested that in Mr Trilling criticism has become a whole activity, that his work uses the best of the skills which have been developed by the formalist, sociological and historical critics. A typical statement on behalf of Mr Trilling is that
together with such writers as F. O. Matthiessen, Edmund Wilson, and Kenneth Burke he has been known for his belief that critical theory must account for the social and even the political elements in literature without in any way abandoning the rigour that has marked the earlier, more purely linguistic or textual criticism.
I am afraid this lofty ideal has not been achieved by Mr Trilling; indeed, after reading his new book I am more than ever convinced that his central interest is not in literature at all but in ideas; which are not, need it be said, quite the same thing. One searches in vain in The Opposing Self or in The Liberal Imagination for that passionate devotion to the work of art in all its concreteness and particularity which the best of the New Critics have continually shown. I suspect that Mr Trilling is drawn to the novel rather than to the poem because in dealing with the novel he can more plausibly move out along his pet sociological tangents. Indeed, on the rare occasions on which he discusses a poem he reveals no great interest in it as a thing…. [In] discussing the novel Mr Trilling's characteristic procedure is to work on a paraphrase and to ignore the words. In the last analysis he is not really interested in the fact that the words of an individual poem or novel are these words and not some others, in this order and not another; inevitably, this indifference puts out of his reach the critical success represented by Morton Zabel's essay on Conrad or Allen Tate's brief study of Poe. Mr. Trilling is astonishingly slow to quote from the author he is discussing (witness his essay on Scott Fitzgerald). He doesn't need to; the most important things he has to say are about 'manners', and they do not emerge from any particular passage nor do they find their justification in any particular text. He likes the wide open spaces; or rather, he is happiest when roaming about the large triangle whose sides are Sociology, Politics, and Literature (in that order). Indeed, it is not at all surprising that his best essays have titles like Art and Neurosis, Art and Fortune, or The Kinsey Report.
I am not denying the power and range of Mr Trilling's mind; on the contrary. His strong grasp of the idealogical organization of our society, for instance, is a virtue of tremendous importance, not least for the literary critic. But, given all this and more, the problem remains: Why are so few of Mr Trilling's comments literary? Is he afraid of the Word?… It may well be that we need something more than the New Criticism and that there is room in literary study for many different kinds of inquiry; but will anyone seriously maintain that The Liberal Imagination or The Opposing Self is more central, more authentic literary criticism than, say [Cleanth Brooks's] The Well-Wrought Urn? It is perhaps worth mentioning that the particular kind of pleasure which I have derived from reading The Opposing Self is closely akin to that provided by sociological studies such as David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd. (pp. 378-80)
I am acutely conscious that I represent a minority view on Mr Trilling's criticism and, since reading The Opposing Self, I have worked out, at least to my own satisfaction, the main reasons for his acceptance as the Whole Critic. In many ways the most important factor is that his prose shows no trace of modern critical jargon; he never talks about tensions, ambiguities, density, irony, tenor, symbolic action, the heresy of paraphrase or the affective fallacy. And, of course, everybody scorns the use of such expressions, although most of them have been recruited to deal with poetic things for which no simpler words are available. Mr Trilling does not discuss these difficult things and therefore finds no need of an appropriate language to cope with them. Secondly, Mr Trilling's criticism has the comfortable feeling of copia, but it is a copia quite unlike Mr Blackmur's (which is technical and literary); Mr Trilling's is the copia of ideas, over and above their literary context. When Mr Blackmur discusses social or religious ideas (as he often does) he is interested in them only as they function or fail to function within the poem; even though, as Mr Ransom says, 'they may be ideas from which, at the very moment, out in the world of action, the issues of life and death are hung.' When Mr Trilling finds himself in that position he simply leaves the poem to look after itself and goes out into this world of action; and many people admire him for doing so. So do I, and I am deeply interested in what he has to say about that world, but I insist that at the point at which he moves out into the world of action he moves away from the central preoccupation of literary criticism. Is that agreed or do we fight about it? Finally, Mr Trilling's special acceptance is probably related to the feeling that here is a critic who derives from the tradition of genteel discourse, by comparison with which the direction of Mr Blackmur's muscular prose is regarded as somehow vicious and retrograde. Mr Trilling himself has reproached the New Critics on the grounds that 'they make the elucidation of poetic ambiguity or irony a kind of intellectual calisthenic ritual', and there is a widespread feeling that such labours consort but poorly with scholarship and a classical education. Mr Trilling is on the safe side in all this, and for that reason he is likely to remain the Intelligent Man's Guide to Literature. (pp. 382-83)
Denis Donoghue, "The Critic in Reaction," in The Twentieth Century (© The Twentieth Century, 1955), Vol. 158, No. 944, October, 1955, pp. 376-83.
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The career and reputation of Lionel Trilling as a literary critic pose something of an anomaly. Not, we should hasten to add, that Mr. Trilling does not deserve all the encomiums that have been lavished on him or the considerable influence he enjoys as a spiritual guide and mentor. But Mr. Trilling is by no means the kind of critic who has dominated the American literary scene since the end of the Second World War. His concern with literature has always been broadly moral and historical—like that of his master Matthew Arnold—rather than more strictly aesthetic or formal—like the group of New Critics who sprang into prominence exactly at the time Mr. Trilling's own star was on the rise. The anomaly posed by his career is that of explaining his reputation, when the whole drift of American literary opinion seemed to be moving in the direction opposite to the one he chose to take.
Part of the answer may be found in an observation of Mr. Trilling himself about such men as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and R. P. Blackmur. It is an illusion, he writes in The Liberal Imagination, to believe that these critics are as free from ideology as they pretend; in reality their so-called aesthetic judgments are profoundly steeped in concealed cultural preferences and moral assumptions. This remark is perfectly just. In defending the autonomy and integrity of the work of art, the New Critics were repulsing the claims of the liberals and radicals to appropriate it for social or political ends; their influence was part of the wave of disillusionment with politics that marked the generation of the fifties. And, though Lionel Trilling approached art with overt moral and historical assumptions, the substance of what he had to say was by no means dissimilar to what the New Critics were advocating in their own way. For the pervasive disillusionment with politics was given its most sensitive, subtle, and judiciously circumspect expression in the criticism of Lionel Trilling—and this is the real answer to the anomaly of his success.
Mr. Trilling's strategy was far more elaborate than that of the New Critics and was deployed with far more finesse. Instead of pretending to immure himself in a confining aestheticism, he showed himself open to all the currents of the political and social life; but in his famous attack on "the liberal imagination" he criticized liberalism for attempting to measure the complexities of reality exclusively by a sociopolitical yardstick. Only literature, he argued, could truly cope with the intricacies of the moral life; and he recommended that politics appropriate for itself some of the suppleness of literature. (pp. 253-55)
Mr. Trilling's criticism of the liberal imagination revealed nothing that was not equally true of any politics that set itself up as a total view of human reality; and he actually criticizes politics from the point of view of art—a point of view happily free from the limiting conditions of all political action. Yet by confining his criticism to the liberal imagination, and not extending it to politics in general, Mr. Trilling implied that his views had immediate practical and political relevance. He thus, as it were, filled the intellectual vacuum left by the New Critics. For Mr. Trilling's readers among the erstwhile liberal and radical intelligentsia could continue to feel that they were actively engaged in the political life, while in fact they were tacitly rejecting it from the standpoint of art that the New Critics defended with less tact and more belligerency.
The delicate poise of The Liberal Imagination was thus based on an unresolved tension in Mr. Trilling's thinking between art and politics. This tension has since been resolved in his succeeding volume, The Opposing Self. For this latter volume of essays is a development of those aspects of Mr. Trilling's thought—aspects that were already present even in his books on Matthew Arnold and E. M. Forster—which come closest to constituting a rejection of the political imagination as a whole.
The best way to approach The Opposing Self is to turn to one of the key essays in The Liberal Imagination, the essay entitled "Art and Fortune." Here Mr. Trilling speaks of the modern will dying of its own excess; and he suggests that literature, particularly the novel, might be of great service in renovating and restoring the will to health. How can this be done?… The way for the modern will to renovate itself, according to Mr. Trilling, is to abnegate its action on the unworthy objects of the social world and attain a state of pure contemplative being; and the chosen agent for this renovation is literature.
Mr. Trilling's antipathy to the will, as we can see, is thus of long standing; and there are moments when, for all his candor, alertness, and receptivity to the historical moment, we seem to feel the "inner check" of Babbitt and More—not to mention the Nirvana of Schopenhauer—lurking ominously in the background. But in any case Mr. Trilling's essays in The Opposing Self are all devoted to exploring this theme of the abnegation of the will which he had broached in The Liberal Imagination. Indeed, he now argues that this abnegation of the will, this substitution of contemplation for an active grappling with social reality, is an important key to modern culture. (pp. 255-57)
In his earlier book Mr. Trilling had attacked the tyranny of the will in wishing to impose its aims on other modes of apprehending reality. Naturally, in the course of doing so, Mr. Trilling stressed art's tragic sense of the conditioned nature of life and of the ultimate insolubility of most human dilemmas. But this was still done in the name of freedom—in the name of the artist's freedom to transcend the concerns of the will and in the name of what Mr. Trilling called "the lively sense of contingency and possibility, and of those exceptions to the rule which may be the beginning of the end of the rule." On the literary level this concern for freedom appeared also in Mr. Trilling's defense of plot, fable, and form in the novel against the realistic prejudices of liberal critics. Authorial minds playing with reality, Mr. Trilling wrote, were for him "the great and strangely effective symbols of liberty operating in a world of necessity."
Mr. Trilling, however, is no longer concerned to defend this authorial freedom from the hampering clogs of realism; he now feels that his urgent task is to defend not freedom but the virtues of acknowledging necessity. For he seems to have acquired an uneasy sense that the spirit of man is ready to fly off at any moment to some distant goal "pinnacled dim in the intense inane"; and for man's own protection Mr. Trilling keeps recalling him to his earthbound condition. Writing of Howells's preference for the "smiling aspects of life," Mr. Trilling concedes that these latter may not be very exciting; but at least, he adds, they will serve "to bind us to the earth, to prevent our being seduced by the godhead of disintegration."
No doubt this anxiety about disintegration is linked to Mr. Trilling's puzzling inability to conceive of the will (pure spirit) except in terms of an apocalypse. Even in The Liberal Imagination he had already defined the modern idea of "progress" as being in reality the extinction of history; and in his intellectual world no alternative now seems left but total acceptance or total disintegration. It is one of the paradoxes of his position that his aversion to the apocalyptic and charismatic, instead of causing him to reprobate extremism in any form, should simply have driven him to adopt the alternative extreme himself.
From a critic of the liberal imagination, then, Mr. Trilling has evolved into one of the least belligerent and most persuasive spokesmen of the conservative imagination. (pp. 267-68)
The weakness of the liberal imagination, as Mr. Trilling shows in his book of that title, is that it views the realm of the ultimate, the eternal, and the immitigable in the perspective of the will. But we may now retort that the weakness of the conservative imagination lies in imposing its sense of the ultimate conditioned nature of life on areas where the will may fruitfully intervene. One of the great merits of The Liberal Imagination was that it criticized the illegitimate ravages of the will without openly impugning its efficacy or necessity in its proper realm; but in adopting the positive standpoint of the conservative imagination, Mr. Trilling has taken over its weakness as well as its strength. And it is to bring out this weakness that we have emphasized so strongly those passages in which Mr. Trilling seems to have yielded too easily to this congenital conservative temptation. For it would be a great pity indeed if Mr. Trilling were to use his scrupulous sensitivity, his lucid and ingratiating style, and his considerable moral authority to encourage this all-too-prevalent failing of the conservative imagination. And one cannot help but feel that, if he continues to do so, he will unwittingly promote what he himself characterizes, in the Howells essay, as "a debilitation of the American psychic tone, the diminution of moral tension." (pp. 270-71)
When Mr. Trilling defended art and the tragic sense of the conditioned in The Liberal Imagination, he performed a distinct service to American culture. These values always need defenders against the overwhelming predominance in American life of a shortsighted optimism and utilitarianism. But in defending the conditioned on the level of middle-class values, and in endowing the torpid acceptance of these values with the dignity of aesthetic transcendence, Mr. Trilling is merely augmenting the already frightening momentum making for conformism and the debilitation of moral tension. The presence of spirit and will has always carried with it the danger of disintegration; but the absence of these qualities inevitably carries with it the far more immediate danger of moral and cultural stultification. (p. 271)
Joseph Frank, "Lionel Trilling and the Conservative Imagination," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1956 by The University of the South), Vol. LXIV, No. 2, Spring, 1956 (and reprinted in his The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature, Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 253-74).
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Lionel Trilling is one of the few critics of any standing to have actually written at some length on the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature. Aside from the incidental use which he makes of psychoanalytic ideas in the regular course of his criticism, he has several times directed his attention specifically to evaluations of what this relationship has been in the past and may be in the future. In particular, there are three essays which may well serve as milestones in his consideration of the subject. Each constitutes a clear statement of a position—even when the position is somewhat ambivalent—and, taken in chronological order, they show a steady progress toward mastery of the scientific ideas themselves and their integration into criticism.
Trilling begins from strength. Even in the earliest of the essays it is evident that he has more knowledge about psychoanalysis than most other critics have so far demonstrated. His careful formulation of its concepts in non-technical language shows that he understands their boundaries as well as what they contain; his conclusions are conservative and judicially stated; his suggestions for new uses of these ideas in criticism are brilliant. And yet in this same essay his manner leaves the impression of a mind not wholly made up, of matter not wholly assimilated, of positive assertions weakened by reservations which are stated just as positively—in short, of a reluctance to follow to its logical conclusion his announced acceptance of Freud's ideas. This striking series of advances toward and retreats from psychoanalysis diminishes in the later essays—although it does not disappear—and they show a surer grasp of the ideas, less disposition to quarrel with them, and a smoother handling of the whole subject. (pp. 202-03)
Although he devotes a good deal of space [in the essay "Freud and Literature"] to tracing the "connection between Freud and this Romanticist tradition," it turns out to be a tenuous one indeed. What actually emerges from this part of the discussion is a historical summary—inadequate by Trilling's own admission—of tendencies in certain European writers toward self-examination by introspection, an outstanding feature of the Romantic period but not by any means confined to it. We know that Freud quoted at least two Romantic writers, Diderot and Schiller, and that he was familiar with others. Trilling seems satisfied that this is enough to establish the validity of his proposition, and his discussion thereupon turns to the influence of Freud on literature and criticism, another topic altogether. (pp. 203-04)
What has actually been demonstrated, of course, is only a temporal association, but it has been treated as though it were a causal relationship. There is nothing to show that it was primarily the literary temper of the time which caused Freud to leave physiology and turn to psychology…. Trilling's habit of thinking in the language of literary criticism and his commitment to the critic's point of view has here apparently caused him to look upon literature as the most significant cultural development of the nineteenth century, if not to place it at the very center of nineteenth-century thought. The claims of science, of religion, of political and social thought cannot be so easily dismissed. But what is in question here is the quality of the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature.
Although some Romantic writers did manage now and then to contribute isolated fragments to the "chaotic mass of insights," it is certainly going too far to call their kind of looking inside the self scientific. And it seems utterly impossible to say, as Trilling does, that psychoanalysis grew out of this literature and was merely a by-product of a literary movement. The fact is that the relation of Freud's thought to the intellectual and cultural currents of his time has been only superficially investigated and that no comprehensive view of it exists as yet. We simply do not know to what extent the genesis of psychoanalysis was facilitated and its development influenced by cultural factors; we do not know how much Freud owed to specific artistic, intellectual and scientific events, how much to general tendencies which were in the air and how much to the unaided achievement of his genius. (pp. 204-05)
[Trilling] next takes up Freud's attitude toward art. He recognizes the important fact that it emerges from psychoanalysis comprehended as a whole and not simply from those few writings in which Freud discussed specific artistic problems. Apparently well informed on the development of psychoanalysis, Trilling knows that clinical advances brought about the revision of certain early hypotheses which could not account for later discoveries. Even by 1940 his acquaintance with the technical, "non-literary" portions of Freud's writings was considerable and provided him with a large quantity of indispensable background information. However, his treatment of the material leaves some question as to the extent of his understanding, and consequently casts some doubt upon the validity of the adverse criticisms which he makes about Freud's views on art. Some of the criticisms are sound, particularly that of the presumed philosophical ground upon which psychoanalysis—along with other scientific disciplines—rests. He praises Freud's rationalistic positivism for the clear goal which it sets as the aim of psychotherapy, i.e., suitable adjustment to reality. (pp. 205-06)
[However, his essay] leaves the impression that Freud looked down on the artist as a man who could not meet the ordinary demands of the world and who consequently retreated into the easier substitute gratifications of art. In support of this contention, which embodies a portion of the truth, Trilling quotes Freud's own words. But this quotation, separated from its context, seems to imply something which the whole passage does not. He is constrained to qualify his remarks soon afterward—he admits, as we have already seen, that the ideas "are later much modified"—when he makes the statement that Freud speaks "of artists, especially of writers … with admiration and even a kind of awe"; and particularly when he concedes that "what may be called the essentially Freudian view assumes that the mind, for good as well as bad, helps create its reality by selection and evaluation." Each time, however, he seems to forget what he has just said, and goes on as though the argument contains no inconsistency. He concludes with the remark that "so far I have done little more than try to show that Freud's very conception of art is inadequate." I do not think Trilling has been successful in this.
One of the difficulties he has encountered lies in the translation of Freud's ideas into the language of criticism. Sometimes this difficulty is avoided by not translating them at all, an omission which has its own dangers. Take, for example, the fact that, for therapeutic purposes, the psychoanalyst regards reality and illusion as opposites. The patient suffers because he acts as though his illusion were outer reality. He thus is able to put off facing his problems, but this bit of self-deception does nothing to solve them. The goal of therapy then becomes the re-educating of the patient so that he can break through the distortion, distinguish the false from the true, and behave in appropriate ways toward both. It follows, therefore, that when art is used for this kind of evasion, the psychoanalyst must regard it with disfavor in the therapeutic context, for it has then been perverted from its proper function and made into a defense against reality. Like all such defenses, it needs to be scrutinized and analyzed solely for its role in the psychic equilibrium; this is psychoanalytic common sense. But to assert that this therapeutically necessary objection to the neurotic misuse of art means that Freud personally considers art only an illusion, and therefore less creditable than other kinds of activity, is unwarranted. (pp. 206-07)
The attempt "to show that Freud's very conception of art is inadequate" … fails because Trilling attributes to psychoanalysis and to its founder a view of reality which they do not hold. Freud did not imagine that the neurotic aspects of art accounted for all of it, nor did he regard the writer as simply a neurotic. On the contrary, as has already been shown by Ernest Jones, he was very much awake to artistic values. Furthermore, in spite of his use of the word, he did not reduce art to the status of a "narcotic," although he recognized that certain individuals may at times use it as one. Trilling seems to overlook the fact that when such a distortion occurs it is the patient's idea, not Freud's. (p. 208)
Despite these weaknesses, the essay shows a superior understanding of larger psychoanalytic issues in at least three areas. Freud's apparently unquestioning reliance upon a rationalistic positivism may indeed be a vulnerable philosophical position, as Trilling suggests…. Of more immediate interest is his understanding that Freud studied irrational behavior without endorsing it, a fact that would hardly be worth mentioning except that some, like the surrealists, apparently are under the impression that the study by itself constitutes a recommendation for unrestricted use of the dark side of the mind in the production of art. Trilling knows that there is more to writing literature than transcribing verbatim one's preconscious ideas. He also knows the role of illusion in neurotic collisions with reality, although, as we have seen, he has some trouble in applying this technical information to the consideration of artistic problems. (p. 211)
The great strength of Trilling's essay is its recognition of the contributions which psychoanalysis has made and can make to the study of literature and even to its production. Most important of all, I think, is the demonstration that the regular processes of mental functioning are poetic in nature…. It is obvious that Trilling has a grasp of what psychoanalysis tells us about the mind and its functioning that is rarely met with outside professional psychoanalytic circles. One of the striking aspects of mental life is its tendency, almost its compulsion, to compare all things that it knows, consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes these comparisons are based on shallow or trivial similarities, even irrelevant ones, such as puns on words that only sound alike but have no common areas of meaning. This power of association, nevertheless, when it is exercised on a more meaningful level, is what makes metaphor and multiple meanings of a symbol possible in dreams, symptoms and works of art. It is to Trilling's credit that he sees this. (pp. 212-13)
In "Art and Neurosis" there is a surer grasp of specific psychoanalytic concepts as well as of the whole tendency of psychoanalysis, and there is far less inconsistency. This is due partly to the theme, which demands close organization and does not lend itself to the rambling treatment that characterized "Freud and Literature." Most of it, however, stems from Trilling's better handling of scientific ideas, which are here brought under control and placed in the service of his critical thought with happy results. The theory that the artist is a poor weakling who is unable to deal with everyday reality as well as solid citizens can and who therefore beats a cowardly retreat into art where he finds an easy substitute for life is demolished here on both scientific and critical grounds. What is more to the point, this is accomplished by criticism using psychoanalysis merely as an auxiliary.
Trilling makes the important observation that the primitive idea of sacrifice for the sake of gain has its derivatives in our culture in the popular beliefs that power may be obtained through suffering and that frustration in one sphere leads to over-fulfillment in another; for example, a blind person will compensate for his loss of sight by developing a keen hearing. This is shown to lie behind the wound-and-bow theory. Edmund Wilson and its other adherents apparently believe the artist to be suffering from an illness of the soul for which he is compensated by the artistic gift, each of these, according to the extreme form of the theory, being a necessary concomitant of the other. As is typical in his criticism, Trilling recognizes the importance of social factors. Here he points out the interesting fact that the theory is socially advantageous both to artists and to philistines. Many of the former accept it as at least compelling acknowledgement that they have talent and are therefore entitled to a privileged position, while it enables the latter simultaneously to listen to the artist and to reject whatever is repugnant to them in his art.
Having established the social, mythic and pseudo-aesthetic basis of the theory, Trilling then attacks it from the standpoint of psychoanalysis. He contends that there is no such thing as "the psychology of the writer," insisting that writers live the same psychic lives as the rest of mankind. This view, while not going as far as Ernst Kris goes into ego psychology, nevertheless is based on Trilling's sound understanding of the nature of neurosis and its relation to normality. In the largest sense, psychoanalysis sees all men as partially involved in neurosis. This does not mean, as is popularly supposed, that all men are ill but only that, as a natural consequence of our need to accept less than full and immediate gratification of our impulses, we must live by psychic compromises. As we have already seen, the dividing line between those compromises which are "normal" and those which are "neurotic" is difficult even for psychoanalysts to define, but Trilling understands this meaning of "neurotic" and is able to relate it to his estimate of the artist…. [Art] is not a product of neurosis according to the popular or gross usage of the term and … the artist is not necessarily more maladjusted than the scientist or the salesman. A man may be neurotic no matter what he does for a living, but it is not his neurosis which makes him skilled at his job, nor must his private woes necessarily interfere with the quality of his vocational performance. With these considerations Trilling has scientifically refuted the wound-and-bow theory and demonstrated that, given its origins and functions, it provides a comforting, though inaccurate, explanation of a disturbing phenomenon. It is, in short, a rationalization.
In place of it Trilling offers his own solution, and it is one which is in accord with psychoanalytic thinking about the psychic situation of the artist. This sees him as the possessor of a special ability to command his material—his reality—and not as a craven evader of human responsibility. As psychoanalysis turns its attention toward the study of everyday success in life and away from its preoccupation with everyday failure, it is beginning to view the artist as the possessor of extraordinary psychic powers. Insofar as he is an artist he is, psychically speaking, anything but a failure…. Trilling's understanding of psychoanalysis enables him to see the fallacy in the oversimple equating of art with illness. From here he continues the search for the meaning of genius not in the direction of science but in that of society, mythology and literature. The contributions of psychoanalysis may be added to any insights thus gained.
In "The Meaning of a Literary Idea" he sets forth his critical doctrine that the writer should have a creative relationship to the meaningful ideas of his culture…. Trilling approaches the psychoanalytic view that our response to a writer is based both on our pleasure in his verbal skill and on the re-awakening of fundamental psychic themes by his work. We need not accept Milton's theology in Paradise Lost in order to enjoy his poetry. And yet these ideas of man's fate are but a particular way of regarding problems which each of us sees from his own point of view. Consequently, the one awakens echoes of the other and of the accompanying psychic values. (pp. 216-19)
This facet of Trilling's criticism is grounded firmly upon the same base as the psychoanalytic ideas of Sachs and Kris, i.e., "the elemental given of biology." He recognizes that human desires arising from physical sources, surely the most prosaic of origins, infuse even the most spiritual ideas with what is probably the largest component of their literary value. This is not simply the echoing of bodily sensitivities—Trilling's knowledge of psychology is too good for that—it consists in part also of pleasure deriving from conscious intellectual processes themselves. What at first appeared to be the extremes of the scale are now seen to be merely two different ways of responding to human necessity, each intimately involved with the other.
Trilling's collection, The Opposing Self, in general demonstrates a surer touch in relating psychoanalytic ideas to criticism than his earlier books. There is more use of ego psychology, although this is not uniform throughout the volume, the high point being the essay on Keats. In it the poet's life, his mind and his art are all illuminated, in part, from a psychoanalytic viewpoint which is kept within the framework of the critic's insight. Trilling is interested not merely in establishing specific connections between biographical events and tendencies in the poetry … but the larger ways in which family and philosophical influences worked together in the mind of the poet and were expressed in his poetry…. Like so many others, Keats sought an awareness of the self through literature which grew out of reflection. In an admirable passage Trilling traces Keats's achievement in self-realization and shows how it leads to the heart of his thought, the confrontation of the problem of evil. (pp. 219-21)
Trilling's interpretation of Keats's thought as presented here is closely parallel to or in harmony with certain psychoanalytic ideas. There is, for example, the concept that self-identity is achieved by cathexis, that is, by the attachment of emotional values to external objects or events or ideas. If the cathexis is sufficiently meaningful—if the self has achieved sufficient identity—then there is correspondingly less need to incorporate more external values since there are fewer gaps in the personality (perhaps "image of the self" would be a better phrase) that clamor to be filled. The sense of one's own reality is then great enough to be satisfying; one has a pleasing set of connections with the world that enable one to function normally; internal fantasies can be measured against external reality. There is no need to submerge one's self in another's personality, as Hitler's more rabid followers did, or in a contrived and closed system of ideas within the limits of which one can remain happily imprisoned while imagining that one has been released from bondage, like the adherents of certain perennially popular ideologies. Keats was never in danger of falling into either of these traps because he possessed the rare quality of "negative capability," the strength to refrain from total commitment to such personalities or such systems, to live without insisting upon, while still seeking, final answers to the great questions of life and death. (p. 221)
In his lecture, Freud and the Crisis of our Culture, before the New York Psychoanalytic Society Trilling continues his concern with the relation of literature and psychoanalysis. For this new audience he reiterates his previous assertion that the mind as Freud described it is "in the greater part of its tendency, exactly a poetry-making faculty." The necessary background having been provided, he then proceeds to his theme: the relationship between the conception of the self, which is always more intensely perceived in literature than in the general culture, and the limitations which the latter places upon it. (p. 222)
With the publication of this lecture Trilling has brought psychoanalytic thought further into harmony with his criticism. His concern with the role of culture, of social influences, on literature impels him to make use of psychoanalytic insights as to the nature of culture. His keen awareness of the interaction between a writer's artistic impulse and its environment helps him to avail himself of the findings of ego psychology. No other critic has shown a comparable grasp of the significance of psychoanalysis; no other critic has so well incorporated it into his criticism. It is true that his criticism has gone in a direction that lends itself particularly well to supplementation by psychoanalytic ideas and that this eases his task. But nothing in this should detract from his accomplishment in learning, in understanding and in applying these difficult concepts to a criticism which is altogether his own. (p. 224)
Louis Fraiberg, "Lionel Trilling's Creative Extension of Freudian Concepts," in his Psychoanalysis and American Literary Criticism (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1960 Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1960, pp. 202-24.
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[For more than 30 years], Lionel Trilling has seen literature as a "criticism of life." The phrase comes from Matthew Arnold, and Trilling rightly interprets it to mean that literature is moral rather than moralistic in character, that it always makes its comment on the individual caught up in society or culture. Every person's freedom is affected by the habits and presuppositions of his time, which often sustain him unconsciously; and our culture could not exist for long without the antagonism of what Trilling calls, drawing among others on Hegel, an "opposing self."
Yet Trilling, of course, has no grand philosophy or overview of the conflict between the two powers he isolates: the self and culture. It is here as in morals generally: the good and the evil grow up together, inseparably. A critic's soul is made, like any other man's, by recognizing that life in society—civilized, cultured life—is an irreversible necessity: what Keats called a "world of Circumstances" is the only school or testing place for a self always in search of its identity.
By defining Trilling as a moral critic one says the obvious, but it is not easy to describe further the at once subtle and strenuous nature of his enterprise. Morals, as R. P. Blackmur suggested, are the quarrel we have with behavior, which evades strict ideals or categories. Yet they are also, surely, a quarrel we have with art itself. For art also evades morality, being on the one hand too playful or esthetic, and on the other surreal and even demonic—in either direction, art reaches beyond accepted definitions of good and evil. What is remarkable about Trilling is that he has remained, despite pressures, a man in the middle, trying to value art's thrust beyond morality while maintaining a belief in its humanizing and acculturating virtues….
Trilling's diagnosis of the modern sensibility is interesting, but it is not what is most important in his work. It is doubtful, first of all, that we can so clearly characterize anything as "modern." When Calypso, on some enchanted isle, offers Odysseus immortality on condition that he live with her, he refuses politely yet firmly. Now Odysseus is not exactly a representative of the critical spirit characterizing modern times, yet he shares what André Malraux called its "lucid horror of seduction." Trilling is not deeply concerned with doing history as an exact science or with evolving precise definitions. He is pointing out—unmethodically, even gropingly—that all our attention these days is devoted to resisting terms and circumstances we have not freely chosen, whereas we have already been unconsciously seduced by the terms we have chosen—by the very rhetoric in which we make our claim for freedom and autonomy.
For if anything is modern it is the labor of self-definition that absorbs so much of our energy and is accompanied by so much pathos and self-pity. While we are so chaste and scrupulous that even the gifts offered by culture or society are seen as constraints in disguise, we all too readily change every social or educational structure in the name of greater "sincerity" or "authenticity." Literary and moral criticism come together in Trilling when he uncovers, [in "Sincerity and Authenticity"], the power of these words and relates them to a movement "beyond culture" (especially beyond high culture) strangely blind to its own history. (p. 1)
Trilling's debt to Matthew Arnold makes him one of the few American critics the English tolerate. The English have never gotten over Arnold, and Trilling's biography of the latter suggests the reason. Arnold reconceived literary criticism as an English type of intellectual life—casual, eclectic, undogmatic—opposed to the French disease of turning out instant ideologies. He kept the English "clerk"—academic, journalist, middle-class intellectual—from wanting to be a little Robespierre. By his distrust of what he called the "Hebraic" or "Puritan" strain in English life, Arnold filtered out moral radicalism; and by his attack on French intellectuality, he impeded political radicalism. Literary criticism was to accept the new reality of ideas in the age following the French Revolution but to insist on their "disinterested" play and circulation. Thus the English way of doing things would be maintained; culture would continue to grow organically, without political shocks; and by diffusing itself gently would eventually atrophy the class structure and bring sweetness and light to all.
Trilling is especially wary of ideological criticism (be it religious, feminist, Marxist or whatever) and its willful bending of works of art to its own purpose. His urbane and crafted essays—so casual yet so woven, digressive yet powerfully recursive—have a decided touch of Arnoldian "sweetness" or of that flexibility, that "belief in the relaxed will" he once attributed to E. M. Forster….
A deliberately relaxed style has its problems, of course…. "Sincerity and Authenticity" can read like a Commonplace Book, where thoughts remain pensées—though by one of the truly cultured scholars of our time. We come to value mainly the quality of the mind from which they issue: a mind that carries with it, and balances, so much of the literary past, that embraces without envious distortion the spiritual form of each author.
Yet Trilling knows that our scrutiny of the human will, either masked (as in art) or naked (as in politics), should remain subject to the oldest question: Is it good or is it evil? It is precisely the difficulty of this question in the modern period (though Trilling conceives of modern widely, as including many figures of the 18th and 19th century) that leads to the writing of "Sincerity and Authenticity." A powerful diagram of the moral life from Shakespeare to the present, it shows the force as well as fallibility of two substitute questions: Is it sincere, and is it authentic? (p. 28)
"Sincerity and Authenticity" is a synthesizing rather than original effort, anticipated by exemplary essays on Dickens, Freud and Austen's "Mansfield Park" in "The Opposing Self" and "Beyond Culture." While its range of allusions is great, the number of texts actually discussed, and the generative ideas put forward, are limited. Its taste, depth and penetration are classical, rather than pioneering, qualities. Yet whatever doubts arise from the synthesizing or condensed nature of this brief for the modern, Trilling does not shirk the task of conveying his own feelings while studying "the moral life in process of revising itself."
He shares the "appalled elation" of Milton and Freud at the spectacle of man's defeat by life. He recognizes its "beautiful Necessity" (Emerson), even "historical necessity," yet is unwilling either to praise or condone. Taught by Hegel, he knows that the self must subvert, and he subverted; that its "alienation" is the spiritual dynamics which bring us to a higher level of awareness; yet taught by Milton, he accepts his obligation to discern the good from the evil in this process. The final pages of his book eloquently upbraid those like R. D. Laing for whom mental illness is a seductive image of "upward psychopathic mobility." At such moments Trilling becomes another last Puritan, or displaced Hebraic consciousness, roused from his Arnoldian flirtation with modern Hellenism.
Few lay sermons are entirely successful, and Trilling's … "Mind in the Modern World," is no exception. Others have disserted on Mind in this generic way (H. G. Wells, whom Trilling mentions; more significantly, Valéry and Husserl); yet mind on Mind produces a risky self-consciousness. Trilling, imbued by his sense of crisis, takes that risk, but the simplifications he falls into, and the unremitting solemnity of the style, suggest a cartoon à la Beerbohm: "Mr. Trilling as Mind, venturing to examine a course it has taken and to correct it." (pp. 30-1)
What Voltaire called "The Philosophy of History" is no more than a corrosive bundle of human absurdities culled from his study of other cultures. To rationalize them was, he thought, to methodize madness, metre de la raison dans la folie. For Nietzsche, who stands closer to us, culture is a burden and inseparable from feelings of guilt. We too perceive that our trouble with historical knowledge is not only intellectual ("how is understanding possible, given so many facts or reports") but also moral ("after such knowledge, how is life to be faced"). Both types of trouble, surely, are part of the dilemma we are in; and what has helped to wound us cannot be so simply offered as its remedy. Trilling's achievement elsewhere is precisely that he exemplifies rather than prescribes a "sense of the past" which intervenes between us and the easy solution. (p. 31)
Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Between the Claims of Self and Culture," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 4, 1973, pp. 1, 28-31.
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Lionel Trilling is probably as famous now as he was twenty years ago, but unless I am much mistaken, his reputation is nowhere near as high as it was in the fifties, the years of The Liberal Imagination and The Opposing Self…. Back then, if this country had a leading literary critic, or, more precisely, a leading literary spokesman, it was Trilling. He was at the center of a number of concentric circles important to the literary intellectual life of the country…. He was one of the best-known "New York intellectuals," by which was usually meant "Columbia" or "the Partisan Review crowd," a group sufficiently coherent in its cultural and political centrality that its enemies, especially the younger ones, always knew who to attack when they wanted to strike their father dead.
Those days are long gone. Liberalism no longer has a near monopoly on intelligence…. [Trilling's] is not a voice that one could expect to adapt itself easily to the sixties, and now that the sixties are almost as dead as the fifties, no one seems to be rediscovering him, finding out that he was right all along, or doing much more than vaguely wondering if he is still alive. (pp. 148-49)
Matthew Arnold is not the best Trilling. After that book he never again attempted to sustain a long consecutive argument, and he discovered that perhaps his most congenial form is the lecture. The voice of The Liberal Imagination, The Opposing Self, and Beyond Culture speaks from a lectern: here is a subject, a problem, a matter for an hour's serious thought, let us see what we can say about it. His latest book, Sincerity and Authenticity, is an attempt to carry on a single argument through a series of lectures given at Harvard a couple of years ago.
The voice is still strong, sure of its centrality despite the events of the last twenty years, and if reading Trilling in bulk does bear certain affinities with eating a meal consisting entirely of Thousand Island dressing, it cannot be said that the years have really taken much toll. Trilling is calm, measured, judicious, generous, as always, and he continues precisely to make the kinds of distinctions he was always most interested in making. One need feel no embarrassment—such as one feels reading the later Eliot, Leavis, or C. S. Lewis—while reading Sincerity and Authenticity; whatever he was good for, Lionel Trilling is good for still. (p. 150)
Anyone who teaches the literature of the last few centuries has had to talk to students about the question of "sincerity." Is Cleopatra "sincere" when she offers her hand to Caesar's messenger to be kissed? Is Marvell ever "sincere"? When Clarissa says she wants only to submit to the reasonable will of her father, does she mean it? Etc. Trilling's opening answer is good…. The rest of the opening lecture is good too. When "society" was invented, when Machiavels traipsed stages of theatres and countries, when villainy became associated with duplicity, when plain speaking became possible and plain speakers could be applauded or laughed at, the question of "sincerity" became a real issue. The more some people simulated selves, and other dissimulated "sincere" selves, the more threats there were both to the society and to the individual attempting rightly to perceive the world around him. (pp. 150-51)
But as society became less whole and real, that ideal tended to become the lynchpin of a reactionary, hypocritical, "insincere" aristocracy, and the ideal that replaced it became more fragmented and confused, given to multiple and complicated tones in order "sincerely" to respond to society. In the second lecture Trilling is at his best. True, he consistently uses his familiar lineup of Big Names—Rousseau, Diderot, Hegel, Goethe—but Trilling knows these figures well, and he is very convincing at outlining the shifts they show us in moral consciousness. Empson, writing about the history of the word "honest" in the same period, is perhaps better than Trilling at this kind of thing, because he can catch more odd and partial tones, but Trilling is always assured and accurate when he retells the history of High Culture, and if such a history can show us the modern consciousness becoming born, Trilling can do the showing.
But at this point Trilling relaxes just when he should have been most cautious and vigilant. When he comes to the nineteenth century he conveniently shifts the focus from the "sincere" to the "authentic," and this allows him to go skating over ponds where the ice is never thin. He carries on from his earlier essay on Emma as pastoral idyll, he gives us Emerson on the English authentic virtues, and Conrad's Marlow on the authentic cruelty of Kurtz. We have all been here before, and a good deal of the time Trilling himself has been our guide. What the opening lectures beautifully set up for is something much more interesting and difficult: the fate of "sincerity" from the time when Jane Austen could tell us who is the more "sincere" Dashwood sister down to the time in this century when "it all depends on your point of view." The most serious writers of the nineteenth century wrestled with the problem as if their lives depended on it. If the Machiavel survives in a figure like Morris Townsend in Washington Square, the hard questions about sincerity do not concern him but Dr. Sloper. We sit and stare at the narrations of Esther Summerson and Nelly Dean, and their very innocence and lack of self-consciousness leads us to wonder at their "sincerity." Perhaps most interesting is Thackeray and Becky Sharp. Trilling puts Becky at the end of a list of duplicitous characters, wolves in sheep's clothing, like Tartuffe and Blifil. But Becky, plotter and schemer though she is, at the crisis of her life claims she is guiltless of Rawdon's charge that she has been unfaithful with Lord Steyne, and Thackeray knows he does not know what to answer. "What had happened?" he asks, "Was she guilty or not?" The questions are not coy; Becky is living on Lord Steyne's money, or, more properly, living well on nothing a year; the morality that can label her "whore" (and therefore duplicitous and insincere) cannot easily operate when transactions are a matter of credit rather than cash. There is sufficiently little difference between Becky's relations with Rawdon and with Steyne that Thackeray cannot say, and knows he cannot say, with whom she is "wife," with whom she is "mistress," to whom she is false or true.
The pity is that the questions I have just raised are right up Trilling's alley, precisely the sort of historical, moral, and literary problem he enjoys most. But instead of asking these questions Trilling sets up the deeply sincere but fundamentally inauthentic command of George Eliot to do one's duty and plays it against the really authentic command of Oscar Wilde to be as artificial as possible, and he does this, presumably, because he knows how to do so, has done so before. But the argument is familiar, to say nothing of doing injustice to George Eliot. This lapse into the familiar, furthermore, continues right through the lectures on the twentieth century: Marinetti's attacks on Ruskin—which, by the way, may be characteristic of early modern attitudes, but are not in themselves worth serious consideration—and a long discussion of Freud that is only slightly different from earlier ones in The Liberal Imagination and Beyond Culture, ending with predictable, if salutary, slaps at Marcuse and Laing…. There is much that can be said of [the passage on Laing], but the most obvious is its conviction, its sincerity and authenticity; the voice that intercedes, that reasons with rabbis, that here comes to an end, knows that for whatever else the mantle of reasonable discourse is to be discarded, it will not be for the chicness of a sentimental madness. And I for one find the patriarchal quality of that list at the end quite moving.
But the passage also reveals the way Trilling's prose is his own worst enemy. In the first sentence it gains nothing to redefine "don't have it in mind to go mad" as "assent which does not involve actual credence," because all it yields is the repetition of "the intellectual life of our culture" as "our circumstance," and to a repetition of Laing's doctrine at the close of the sentence. Having thus wrapped himself in his own thick phrasing, Trilling can only go on saying where he quite obviously already is, and the second sentence, full sixty words, adds absolutely nothing, leading neatly, in the final sentence, to still another repetition of Laing. The man, it must be admitted, just loves the sound of his own orotundity. Nor is my example unfair; the heaviness, the repetitiveness, is everywhere in Trilling's prose, and has been there from the beginning. When one says Trilling's writing can be flexible, one does not mean that it is not ponderous.
What the prose shows in every gesture, of course, it reveals about the mind. Trilling treats himself as an institution, and so he can never speak with anything less than full assurance. It never occurs to him that we may not want to know what is on his mind, or that we might entertain an idea of Western culture different from his, or that we might approach it in different ways. Trilling does not think the history of the last five centuries is fully recoverable, but he unfailingly does think he can recover enough to make it relevant for any question that happens to be pressing; all you do is make patterns, continuities, trends, emphases. That way you seldom have to go one-on-one with an author, or to wish you knew more, or, occasionally, less. He never gives the impression of having read anything for the first time, of being surprised, confused, delighted, enraged, or captivated by anything he has read. That the past can rebuke the present is clear enough to him, though he never takes this idea seriously enough to think that perhaps now is not the best time to say something.
The impulse is to be masterful, to make sermons, to have disciples, and anyone who has ever taught or written knows it well. But since it is an impulse that easily can blind us to what we have not said, it is one which anyone of conscience and intelligence must guard against. The easiest and best way to keep the guard up is to quote, to quote a lot, to quote at length, because, unless one does this in the spirit of a copyist, one is forced to face the fact that the subject is another mind, one is forced to try to make one's prose responsive to the words of another, even if the response is scorn or laughter. Trilling quotes, but almost always in a summary way, so that what he is quoting can easily be folded into Trilling's argument and Trilling's demeanor need never alter. The point is not that Trilling is René Wellek or A. O. Lovejoy or George Steiner or someone else whose impulse to mastery leads to mongering the humorless, the absolute, or the fashionable. The point is, rather, that for all his serious and generous intelligence, he shares with these and similar writers the quality of seeming much better in the reading than in the memory. The way he seeks to gain himself, to be the master, is a way that tends to mean that he loses us because he never fully lets his subject live separately from him.
One suspects that for the average reader Trilling will be most admired for his utility in speaking to and perhaps even settling issues where literature is only part of the subject: "Reality in America," the essays on Freud, "The Meaning of a Literary Idea," "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," "The Two Environments," etc. The advantage Trilling enjoys is that he is a thinker, he is generous, but he is no theoretician, and as a result these essays have and probably will continue to find their way into anthologies; they are useful, if one admits their subjects to be anything like as interesting or crucial as Trilling takes them to be. But for me these essays reread very badly, and for two reasons: the subjects themselves tend to date, and the whole idea of being plumply judicious about subjects of concern is one which has seen better days. (pp. 151-55)
Trilling is better than this, I think, when forced to address himself to a particular writer or work. This focus is no guarantee of success, but then it never is, and when quotation is what is called for and Trilling won't quote, the results can be damaging, as in his failure to note how flaccid Wordsworth is in the first half of the Intimations Ode, or to see how very good is Vernon Parrington's description of Hawthorne, even though his estimate of Hawthorne is much lower than Trilling thinks it should be. But even here Trilling is really interesting; if he cannot settle subjects, be truly decisive with individual works, he can almost always be counted on to ask good questions, to open something up: the essays on Emma and Mansfield Park, the appreciation of Keats's letters, the piece on The Bostonians, the sections on Diderot and Hegel in the present volume—give Trilling a subject where his penchant for generalizing is called for, and he is a careful and fine critic. One wonders why he has never done more than allude to the late Augustan writers—Fielding, Johnson, Gibbon, Burke—for surely here, if anywhere, is his real métier, the sober, the wise, the ironic, the heroically reasonable and learned. Trilling needs centrality of concern to be himself central; he cannot respond well to quirkiness and eccentricity, to slippery surface texture, to unargued assertion, to prejudice or mere opinion. He might feel he can twit Leavis about Leavis's apparently insistent moral tone, but he could never have written with Leavis's delicacy about Jonson, Carew, and Pope.
If Trilling's moment of highest fame and respect has passed, it is not likely to return, because he just does not write well enough, care enough for words, to outlive the world he received and in which he flourished. If we are to maintain our link with the European past we will have to do so more fugitively and eagerly than Trilling has done, and with a more urgent sense that we are liable to lose it if we fail to speak in our own voice, our ignorant voice, our American voice. Trilling wanted to be Matthew Arnold, and there was a time when that was taken as a wonderful thing to try to be. Trilling filled the role well. One might complain that he chose the wrong model, that Mill, or Ruskin, or George Eliot are more worth the effort. Perhaps the better complaint is that we had best be done with models, that we can keep the past alive not by imitating or emulating it but by reading its words aloud and by answering them in whatever authentic voice we have, wildly, loudly, or in hushed tones. (pp. 156-57)
Roger Sale, "Lionel Trilling" (originally published in The Hudson Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1973), in his On Not Being Good Enough: Writings of a Working Critic (copyright © 1979 by Roger Sale; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, pp. 148-57).
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Judged against our contemporary standard—which is far less absolute than its "true believers" generally realize—Mr. Trilling's criticism must, it is true, be acknowledged as more than a little "impure." For his interests have most assuredly led him to see literary situations as cultural and moral situations, so much so indeed that he sometimes makes us feel that he—no doubt not in any very highly conscious or programmatic way—regards criticism as a department of philosophy and as most particularly related to that specific philosophical discipline which, by reason of its special concern with the nature and place and prospect of man, in its traditional designation, as "anthropology." Yet, despite the consistency with which the critical act for him has made an occasion for an essentially anthropological inquiry—despite the unfailing intensity of his long meditation on the exigencies attendant upon the life of selfhood in the modern world—what cannot fail to be immediately remarked is that, nevertheless, unlike so many others of his generation in criticism (the late F. O. Matthiessen, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt), his thought has never embraced any sort of religious position. One even feels a primary effort of his mind to be one which has been spent in firmly and constantly resolving that the question of man shall remain an anthropological question and shall never be permitted to elevate itself into the precincts of metaphysics or theology. Mr. Trilling has, in short, always shown himself to be a thinker most determinedly committed to a secular perspective. (pp. 156-57)
[One] feels impelled to speak of the affirmation Mr. Trilling has most essentially wanted to make as having entailed a certain burden, because, as his thought has proceeded over the past twenty-five years, principally through his criticism, his sense of cultural reality has constantly enforced upon him a recognition of the threatened status of that "modulated" vision descending from those who have managed (in the manner, say, of Wordsworth and Keats, or of the Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and of Freud) to be responsive at once to the Enlightenment and to Romanticism. And it is, indeed, in the synthesis of the Enlightenment's endorsement of the life of reason, of man's assuming full responsibility for his condition in history, with the insistence of Romanticism that there is more in our human Lebenswelt than reason can precisely measure and codify—it is in the nice amalgamation of these two accents that Mr. Trilling finds a true adumbration of a complete secular wisdom about the human situation. (pp. 170-71)
[The] book that guaranteed his American reputation—The Liberal Imagination—is very nearly a pejorative in the lexicon of [the] most steadfast votary of the liberal tradition. For, though its interests are closest to his heart, the "liberal imagination." in its recurrent failure to reckon with the "variousness and possibility," with the "complexity and difficulty" of the human enterprise, has too often not been good enough. (p. 171)
[What] he would seem to have felt to be the chief cause of the crisis in liberalism was its failure to keep its legacy from the Enlightenment informed by the sensibilities of Romanticism…. The intention to achieve a rational organization of life promotes the tendency to view the world as wholly comprised of that which is rationally manipulable…. In short, a besetting tendency of the modern, secular, liberal mind is to deal impatiently with whatever seems inclined to elude the nets of systematic formulation. (pp. 174-75)
[It] is doubtless his own great desire to "open and complicate" the liberal imagination that has led Mr. Trilling in his more purely literary work to make the point of intersection between literature and society the focus of his criticism. Given his own semantic, of course, he would doubtless himself prefer to have that extramural dimension to which his criticism has related the literary imagination specified as "politics." And, to be sure, he is constantly to be found meditating upon the coalescence in modern culture of these two spaces, of the literary space and of that which he speaks of as politics. But the more closely Mr. Trilling's essays are examined the more evanescent becomes that region of meaning with which the term politics permits itself in his usage to be identified, and it does finally seem that the speciality with which the term behaves in his writing is to be understood only when it is connected with that particular moment in his criticism when he quite explicitly speaks of evanescence…. [The] great human reality with which literature in the modern period has had to deal has been that of "politics"—namely, the kinds of tensions, the kind of drama, engendered in a pluralist society by ideas, most especially when they are "living things, inescapably connected with our wills and desires." And in this sense, then, it may, indeed, be that we should speak of politics rather than society as that whose relation to literature Mr. Trilling has made the focus of his criticism. For his central subject of inquiry has been that complex reciprocity of pressure between literature and the Idea which is a primary fact of the modern scene.
In the essays comprising The Liberal Imagination, the particular body of ideas (or ideology) whose relation to modern literature fell under Mr. Trilling's scrutiny represented that great modern passion for the clear and distinct idea which, in its intolerance of variousness and contrariety, inevitably sponsors those schemes of thought calculated to diminish or attentuate the human reality. Perhaps the most immediate mystique he was resisting was that which had been established by the pieties of the American intelligentsia of the Left in the period of the nineteen-thirties and early forties, when the utopianism of the Communist Party and its fellow-travelers was a dominant spiritual force. But the oversimplification of the present in the interests of "the far future" was for him but a type and example of that larger malaise of liberal thought which involved such an infatuation with rationality as inclined the modern intelligence to expel from the circle of its attention whatever resisted easy rational mastery. So, whether he was talking about the Annals of Tacitus or Henry James's The Princess Casamassima, about Parrington's Main Currents or the Kinsey Report, about Kipling or Freud or Scott Fitzgerald, he was wanting to hold up models either of a tonic kind of "realism" or of some typical stupidity of liberal progressivism. It was a similar purpose at work in the more purely speculative pieces in the book of 1950—in the famous essays on "Manners, Morals, and the Novel," on "Art and Fortune," and on "The Meaning of a Literary Idea." And the collection as a whole constituted what needs hardly now to be remarked, as we stand at a remove from it of more than twenty years-namely, one of the most brilliant bodies of testimony in the whole literature of modern literary criticism and one of the great American books of this century.
The assessment of the liberal imagination which Mr. Trilling had begun in the 1940s was carried forward into a new phase by the essays making up his book of 1955, The Opposing Self. Here, as it now seems, his primary theme was shifting somewhat, from his earlier concern with the oversimplifications of reality sponsored by the liberal intelligence to a new preoccupation with that penchant for life in the angelic mode which is fostered by the passion for the clear and distinct idea. (pp. 181-84)
It is the great opening essay on Keats in the book of 1955 which, again, reveals most immediately Mr. Trilling's touchstone. The essay is filled with admiration and tribute…. The thoroughgoing secularity of Keats's general outlook leads Mr. Trilling to speak of it as having entailed a very "intense naturalism", and a positive, confident naturalism does, of course, solicit his approbation. But what is most engaging in Keats is that his is a naturalism which never lost its firm grip on the essential fact, that it is the destiny of the self always to confront the difficult and limiting actualities of circumstance.
Indeed, for Mr. Trilling Keats stands not only as a great image of health but even as perhaps "the last image of health at the very moment when the sickness of Europe began to be apparent." For, as the essays in The Opposing Self make evident, what he sees as continually tempting in modern literary and intellectual life is the inclination to demand that life be pure spirit, the tendency to conceive the ideal posture of the self in relation to "the conditioned" as one of an "opposition" so radical as to entail an essentially angelic aspiration. (pp. 185-86)
If Keats has something like an heroic status in Mr. Trilling's design, it does not, however, surpass that which is granted Wordsworth…. Mr. Trilling considers it to have been a part of Wordsworth's genius that, as a poet, he should so constantly have kept alive his faculty for realizing in himself and awakening in us what he speaks of in the Second Book of The Prelude as "the sentiment of Being," the sense of life being justified (as Mr. Trilling says) "in its elemental biological simplicity."… Yet it is Mr. Trilling's contention that, for all of the modern reader's impatience with the accepting attitudes towards the material and conditioned circumstances in which spirit must have its residence, these are, nevertheless, attitudes with which the grain of literature has often been most deeply inwrought. And it is of this that he wants to present certain focal instances, in his essays on such texts as Bouvard and Pécuchet and Anna Karenina, as Mansfield Park and Little Dorrit and The Bostonians. (pp. 188-89)
It is, however, the volume which appeared in 1965—Beyond Culture—that presents, in its assemblage of the major essays that had appeared since The Opposing Self, the largest evidence of Mr. Trilling's continuing engrossment by the ideas that had centrally figured in the book of ten years before. As in each of the previous anthologies of his criticism, one's attention is most especially fixed in this volume by certain pivotal statements, amongst which it is the beautifully nuanced and spacious essay on "The Fate of Pleasure" that makes the readiest connection between the book as a whole and the work that had been exhibited a decade earlier in The Opposing Self. Here, it is Wordsworth who again offers an initial point of reference, particularly the bold declaration in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads that it is "the grand elementary principle of pleasure" which constitutes "the naked and native dignity of man," that it is this principle by which man "knows, and feels, and lives, and moves." It is not the considerable intrinsic interest of Wordsworth's statement, however, that Mr. Trilling most wants to contemplate, but, rather, it is the quickened awareness of our present sense of life that the statement conveys, by the very greatness of the remove at which it stands from the secularized spirituality of our own period. (pp. 190-91)
[The] polemical ironies which Lionel Trilling over a long period has directed upon the modern passion for the life of "pure spirit" have tended, as was surely expectable, to raise the hackles of many of his literary confreres. As his tone has grown increasingly astringent, the large admiration of his critical work being generally expressed two decades ago after the appearance of The Liberal Imagination has in some quarters been withdrawn altogether, or has at least in some quarters been very considerably qualified. The line taken a few years ago by Joseph Frank [see excerpt above] represents the kind of emphasis that the animadversion has frequently expressed. Mr. Trilling's constant fidgeting over his dialectic of the restlessness of the modern self and the intractability of circumstance, his sharpness toward the great penchant of the liberal imagination for some kind of angelism, his critique of the modern longing for pure spirit, his antipathy toward any impatient rejection of "the conditioned"—all this, says Mr. Frank, simply betokens an opting for "stability and stasis" which, in its disparagement of the will, at best represents a kind of reinstatement of the "inner check" of Irving Babbitt and which, at the worst, represents an intention to substitute "contemplation for an active grappling with social reality."… [Mr. Trilling is], in short, to be regarded as a reactionary whose chief role today is that of lending a certain fancy elegance to an essentially obscurantist politics of conformism. It is, indeed, coming from a critic of Joseph Frank's brilliance, an astonishing estimate; but it is, nevertheless, the judgment he renders, and—amidst the general slackening of intellectual life in this country sponsored in recent years by the devotees of the New Left—it, even in its drastically simplistic appraisal, may be far more modulated than the verdict many of the radical young would now be prepared to hand down. (pp. 198-99)
Mr. Trilling is, as we have noticed, at once a man of the Enlightenment (who is thoroughly committed to the adventure of the will, to the rational mastery of the world) and a Romantic (who believes that man is the creature of a world which, ultimately, surpasses his power to weigh and measure and manipulate). His major assumption is what he conceives to have been the inevitable assumption for men living in the West since the time of Rousseau, that our human fate is lived out in relation not to God but to culture, to the ideas and manners distinguishing the social totality that provides the self with its environing matrix of thought and faith and human relationship…. Mr. Trilling takes it for granted—and not unreasonably—that for the secular intelligence of the modern period the ultimate reality, the thing that cannot possibly not be known, is nothing other than the human polity, the fact of culture itself. With all those who so conceive the nature of ultimacy, he is conscious of sharing a tendency to view culture, however, with a certain indignation, to feel something terrible in the idea of man-in-culture. For it is an idea which holds forth the possibility of man utterly at the mercy of culture; and no thought is more repugnant to modern sensibility than this, since it contravenes the most basic article of any genuinely secular faith—namely, that man has dominion over the world and that the chief instrument of his dominion is reason, free and unfettered and autonomous. So, in its commitment to the dream of autonomy, in its determination not to submit to the coercion of any force other than that of the rational intellect itself, the modern mind has constantly resisted acknowledging the possibility that man might be subject to the conditioning power of any constellation of objective circumstance, even that of culture; and thus it has undertaken to keep faith with its Enlightenment legacy. Yet the insistent testimony in behalf of autonomy has regularly inclined to overreach its intended goal of guaranteeing to man his full human stature, just in the degree to which its denial that he is a beast has proved in effect to be an avowal that he is something like an angel. And it is precisely the unsteadiness of the hold which secular wisdom has kept on the centrist vision—of man as neither beast nor angel—that has defined for Mr. Trilling his basic problem.
His humanism, in other words, is a very anxious humanism indeed, not because it lacks confidence in its own premises but because it finds the ranks of its own confederacy to be so frequently unreliable, since modern secularity has consistently fumbled its great burden, of upholding the full tension and polarity and modulation that belong to the essential reality of the human. But, for all of his quiet modesty, this is the burden Mr. Trilling has wanted to assume; and thus the focalizing theme of his thought has come to be the nature of the self, at once in its freedom and in its finitude, at once in its autonomy and in its servitude to circumstance. (pp. 200-01)
[What] has apparently been the tendency of Mr. Trilling's thought in recent years, to set aside his earlier Arnoldian faith in the redemptive power of art, may augur some new readiness to undertake in a more forthright way the further philosophical (and perhaps even in some sense theological) task of which it has been the special distinction of his literary criticism to be a kind of pledge. At least this, one feels, is the best hope to be entertained for the remaining phase of his career. For, very probably, it will not be until aposiopesis as the method of his cultural criticism begins to be replaced by some more positively assertory mode which is rooted in a developed philosophical anthropology that Mr. Trilling will finally be released, particularly by many of his younger readers today, from the suspicion that his thought ultimately lines itself up behind nothing more than a stasis of the given. And this, one suspects, is indeed the impression it very often conveys now to the populous younger public which wants to say, with that proprietor of a London pub in The Waste Land, "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME." Against the reductionism and the rationalism and the angelism of the modern intelligence, Mr. Trilling's concern to make the centrist testimony (neither beast nor angel) has required him, again and again, to say, "Not that … and not that…." But to the New Sensibility the sum of his negatives, with all their solicitude for the tensions and balances within extremes, may perhaps seem only a very unheroic shoring up of things as they are. (pp. 213-14)
[Whatever] may be the unresolved ambiguities in the work that Lionel Trilling has produced, our strongest sense of his achievement ought surely to be of the richness it has added to the life of the mind in this country over the past generation and of the cause that we have, therefore, for thinking of it primarily in the terms of gratitude. He does himself (in Beyond Culture) attribute to W. H. Auden the remark that great books are not simply read, that they do in turn read us as well. And so it might also be said of him, that he is one of the Americans of our time whom we have read but by whom we have ourselves been far more deeply read—which is perhaps to say that, whatever may be the proper estimate of his limitations, he still remains a part of the best we have. (p. 216)
Nathan A. Scott, Jr., "Lionel Trilling's Anxious Humanism—The Search for 'Authenticity'," in his Three American Moralists: Mailer, Bellow, Trilling (copyright © 1973 by University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame, IN 46556), University of Notre Dame Press, 1973, pp. 151-216.
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